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Originally published Monday, June 25, 2012 at 5:00 AM

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Q&A: Yoram Bauman — economist, author, jokester

Seattle resident Yoram Bauman is the author of "The Cartoon Introduction to Economics: Volume Two: Macroeconomics." He talked to Seattle Times book editor Mary Ann Gwinn about employment, debt and the Greek financial meltdown.

Seattle Times book editor

On the Internet

Yoram Bauman: standupeconomist.com.

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Lit life

I've been feeling discombobulated by the economy of late — that gut-churning feeling never ends. How is it that free-spending Greeks can depress the balance of my kids' college fund? What nasty surprises are afoot in the capitols of the PIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain)? OMG, maybe it's time to bring back the barter system.

In need of insight, not to mention a laugh, I called up Yoram Bauman, the world's only stand-up economist, co-author of "The Cartoon Introduction to Economics: Volume Two: Macroeconomics" (Hill & Wang, 240 pp., $17.95).

A Reed College graduate, Seattle resident Bauman got his start by writing a parody of a well-known economics book. He honed his gags with stand-up routines at Seattle's Comedy Underground. Then he teamed up with Grady Klein, a terrific cartoonist, and the rest is history (the history of cartoon economics books, anyway). Their first collaboration, "The Cartoon Introduction to Economics, Volume One: Microeconomics," has been translated into nine languages. Publishers Weekly called Volume Two "clever, lucid, and lighthearted."

Bauman tried to make me feel better, but he seemed a wee bit worried himself:

Q: Two years ago when your first book was published you said, "There's not a whole lot that's funny in the macroeconomy right now." Are things more or less funny at the moment?

A: Wow. Not a lot (funnier). The economic situation is pretty grim. You have folks like Paul Krugman who say that austerity is terrible. Others say that it's more of a structural issue, that we have this mismatch between the jobs employers have and the skills needed by workers to fill those jobs.

Q: Explain why the meltdown in Greece affects job creation and investment here.

A: What's going on in Greece won't impact the U.S. as much as it impacts Europe. Europe is an export market for the U.S., so the situation does affect the ability of U.S. businesses to sell products there.

My impression is that U.S. banks do not have a lot of ties to Europe, but if those dominoes start falling, you have to worry about where they are going to lead. We live in a global economic community. If you have any of the big players that really start to suffer, there's going to be follow-up.

Q: My mood is not improving. Let's try another subject. You make the point in the new book that despite massive changes — technological advances, entry of women into the work force — free markets continue to be great at generating new jobs. Will this continue?

A: There's a panel in the cartoon book where you have a robot driver, and the woman in the back seat of the car says, look at all these people who can't find jobs! The robot says, yes, ma'am, that's a tragedy. Seriously — there's no law that says everybody's going to get a job, but the track record has been pretty good. You look at all the changes that have happened over the last century, the economy still seems to be pretty good at putting people to work.

Q: One hot topic this year has been the country's long-term debt, which everybody worries about but no one seems to be able to do anything about.

A: It's getting a lot of press, and a lot of people claim to be worried about it. That's good, I think ... .

If you look at the U.S. national debt like it's a percentage of GDP (Gross Domestic Product), it's in "cautious" territory. It's not like a 200 percent of GDP, like Greece. It's more like 80 percent of GDP. It's not where you want to be, but it's not a Greece-style disaster.

It's the implicit debt (that's worrisome), such as the promises we've made in the areas of Social Security and Medicare. It swamps the other kinds of debt. The Republicans spend a lot of time talking about debt, then they run ads about how Democrats want to cut Medicare. Every time either side tries to do anything about Medicare, the other side just bashes them over the head with it. That gives me more pause for concern.

Q: In the book you say that John Maynard Keynes' statement "In the long run, we are all dead" is the world's first economics joke. I'm not laughing!

A: In economics we have to take our humor where we can get it. Anyway, it was the first macroeconomics joke, not the first economics joke.

Mary Ann Gwinn: 206-464-2357 or mgwinn@seattletimes.com. Gwinn appears every Tuesday on TVW's "Well Read," discussing books with host Terry Tazioli (go to www.tvw.org/shows/well-read for archived episodes). On Twitter @gwinnma.

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